Ben O’Connor has signed a new contract with French team AG2R Citroën until 2025, the team he joined in advance of the 2021 season.
“I really feel good here so why change again?” he said to CyclingTips after finishing fifth on stage 7 of the Criterium du Dauphiné. “They have confidence in me and I in them. Changing and moving is always a bit daunting so it would be a stupid move. Of course, there was interest from other teams, that’s the market, but AG2R Citroën fits me. I don’t feel stress here and the stability I now have is nice.”
Late last season, the French team threw a lifeline to the then 24-year-old from Perth, Western Australia because O’Connor’s NTT Pro Cycling Team was about to fold and he had no offers yet. But that was before his performance at last year’s Giro d’Italia, where he went on the attack almost daily until he won the mountain stage to Madonna di Campiglio.
“I didn’t even feel good in the first part of the Giro,” he recalls. “I was sick but in the second part the team started to make the race and feel confident. Every day is a chance and I took it with both hands. Same for the contract offer by [then named] AG2R-La Mondiale.”
It was just a one-year contract so the 25-year-old had to prove himself right from the start.
“That was a bit hard because I started with a broken collarbone,” he says with a smile. “I learned not to stress and learned that you can bring that end of season form quite far, but I did miss all the December training camps.”
Those early camps are all about getting to know the team and for an Australian who didn’t speak any French, it was a tough introduction.
“The first months on the team were all about integration. You have to be serious [about your job] but not too serious – be jovial and friendly,” he says. “Many of the staff don’t speak anything else but French and in Australia learning another language isn’t obligatory. But even if you don’t speak each other’s language, you can understand each other because you understand each other’s emotions. Now I speak some French like basic sentences around needs and wants. I am improving every day.”
The biggest change in O’Connor’s career has been the consistency he now shows: 16th in Tour de la Provence, fifth in Tour des Alpes Maritimes et du Var, 12th in Paris-Nice, 23rd in the Basque Country and a sixth place in the Tour de Romandie. On Sunday he concluded the Criterium di Dauphiné in eighth place after consistent performances in the Alps.
Next up for the Australian is the Tour de France. He’s raced the Giro d’Italia three times and the Vuelta a España once, but it’s going to be his Tour debut. On a French team, no less.
“I am an Australian on a French team,” he says. “That’s a different position than Romain [Bardet] had. He was the golden boy of AG2R. He has achieved so much more than I have at his age. I am not French so I don’t have the stress that comes with it to perform at his level.”
With his past results and a strong Dauphiné, O’Connor – and his good friend and teammate Aurélien Paret-Peintre – could be outsiders for the Tour de France, but he doesn’t want to think of that just yet.
“The Tour is still a while away and as a team we haven’t decided what we will do,” he explains. “I know that my consistency creates expectations but if the opening week is about helping Benoit [Cosnefroy] or Greg [Van Avermaet] that is what it is. Maybe I will go for stages or maybe for a general classification. A GC is hard because there are no chances at stage wins then. No matter what [the team decides] I just want to be there at the start in Brest.
“The Tour de France is always hugely stressful, especially that first week, so I find that daunting, but other than that I don’t have stress. It’s the same guys I rode against today; it’s still racing but maybe faster.”
After O’Connor finishes the Critérium du Dauphiné on Sunday, he goes to Tuesday’s Mont Ventoux Challenge to check out the iconic mountain which also features in this year’s Tour de France. With his ability on the longer climbs, don’t be surprised if O’Connor wins atop the Giant of Provence in a few days’ time.